Top Hat Burger Palace
2050 E. Main St.
It seems every town in America has its own “signature” burger. It must have a distinct, consistent flavor and usually comes from a drive-in, shanty, diner, pool hall or other colorful location that has been there seemingly forever. That flavor and location (both full of nostalgia) are so interwoven into the tapestry of a town, one can hardly imagine when it didn’t exist. For Ventura, Top Hat Burger Palace was one of those quintessential spots, and when it was shuttered, a hole was ripped in Ventura’s fabric.
Every time I drove by Top Hat’s former location, I would see a lively group of folks gathered around its window. Some frequented Top Hat every single weekend and others would return only occasionally, to relive a memory or visit when home for a holiday. But when Top Hat closed, just as when O-Hi Frostie served its last burger, it was disorienting. (O-Hi burgers are now being served at the Wrec Room in Ojai.) Locals fought valiantly to save both locations but ultimately lost. Not only was a familiar flavor gone, but also a sense of place.
Recently, a new version of Top Hat has been opened by new owners, on the midtown corner where It’s in the Sauce BBQ used to be. Upon first seeing its bright new red-and-white facade, I pondered just how much of the Top Hat’s essence came from its previous downtown location (occupied since the 1940s) and the familiar faces who owned it and worked there. Would having the same ingredients and recipes be enough? Or would people long for the memories, characters and experience?
Driving by its grand opening, I witnessed a slice of Americana in action as crowds gathered to celebrate and taste the flavors they’d feared lost forever. That first week of business, it wasn’t unusual for someone to wait an hour for a burger and an order of chili fries and yet no one seemed to mind. We arrived on a weekday after the lunch rush and missed most of the crowd. We stood in line, our backs to the street, listening to traffic whiz by and smelling exhaust fumes as we waited to place our order. The clerk at the counter was bright and enthusiastic in her new outfit.
In about 10 minutes, we heard, “Number 22!” and headed to the window. We grabbed a few packets of ketchup and Tapatio hot sauce and moved to the outdoor tables. My companion noted that each item was wrapped very particularly. The burger was cleverly folded into its little origami-esque paper wrapping, the fries were tucked inside a tray that was inside a bag, and all came neatly nestled in little paper trays.
First we unwrapped our Top Hat Special, a double cheeseburger. The patties were dense seasoned beef, the white cheese was creamy, and the bun grilled on the inside. The burger patty is very distinct because the seasoning has strong notes of black pepper, which my companion considers part of Top Hat’s particular signature flavor. The patties were moist and all the components melded well together.
We then tasted the grilled ham and cheese — medium-thick slices of ham layered with a slice of cheese, placed between double-grilled bread slices. The details of the double grilling and the ratio of meat to cheese created such a nostalgic taste. It’s the way grilled cheeses used to taste before people tried to make them fancy.
We tried a chili dog and each got a bite before most of the chili, sadly, slid off onto the ground. (Watch your angle, folks!) The thick chili had the slightest touch of heat, and melted cheese sat on top. The bun was anemically white, not grilled, and lacking in comparison to the burger and grilled ham and cheese. The chili also came with small bits of raw onions sprinkled on top.
We also sampled the onion rings and the fries. The fries were a medium girth and covered in flavored seasoning. They were crispy on the outside and soft and powdery on the inside and had bits of potato peel on the tips. The onions rings were golden with sweet onions inside, but, we couldn’t really taste the onions due to the thickness of the coating.
When we were there, customers practically strutted around the new location, already acting as if they owned it. I tread lightly on nostalgic places such as this, that many know far better than I ever will since I didn’t grow up in Ventura, but I did check in with those around me to see if everything was just as they remembered.
On the whole, the answer was “yes.” Most thought the food tasted exactly as they remembered. But others mentioned details, such as “We miss the Tootsie Roll Pops Jack (the former owner and cook) used to give us.” They would recount how he was known to yell out to people across the street or on motorcycles as they passed by. So it appears most of the food is at least close, but (for now at least) the characters are missed.
For more food writing and photography by DK Crawford, go to www.thefoodsavant.blogspot.com